On the bed of Ultiverse, limbs surrender to the darkness, a place where familiarity and unfamiliarity caress. People become silhouettes; abstracted shapes without identity markers, detectable only by fractals of light like those at the bottom of a swimming pool or the sea, or perhaps the inside of a womb. Emotions whirl and lurch, separate from conscious thought…
Ultiverse, or the ‘ultimate universe’, is an audio-visual installation by Leeds-based artist Akeelah Bertram that cocoons the viewer in a world where meaning is derived collectively. For its latest iteration it was shown as part of Light Night Leeds 2018 (4-5 October) at The Tetley. The work included hourly performances by writer Zodwa Nyoni, dancer Akeim Toussaint Buck, composer Aron Kyne, vocalist Thabo Mkwananzi, programmer Joanne Armitage, intern Mirabel Ukpabio and a host of other collaborators and participants.*
Slumped against a column on the floor, pressed between that which came before and all that is yet to come, I felt as though the room became a holding space for the heaviness that each of us carries. Ultiverse is now, in the present, with its ego stripped bare by rumbling sounds, elevating melodies and bodies that move with open chests – revealing hearts that are usually encased by muscle and skin and armour and baggage and more protection. Ultiverse is a place unknown to most of us so the languages we hold won’t suffice – it leaves an impression of experience as opposed to words – so my challenge is to imprint upon you, the reader, my personal experience of Ultiverse, whilst acknowledging that this is not an exact description or a reflection of what you might have thought or felt.
Ultiverse is a set of artistic conditions loosely orchestrated by Bertram but shaped by artist-collaborators, participants and viewers. Through a kind of reflexive and iterative process, the voices of participants (and eventually those of audience members) are drawn out and melded together using pre-recorded sound, movement, light forms and live sound creation. The space is filled with an array of lived experiences, gradually bringing the project closer toward a conclusion but never reaching it. Journeying in this meandering way is a central aspect of the work. Bertram uses the word ‘vibrations’ to describe the relationship between people. There’s a sense of oneness or sameness that permeates the Ultiverse, which temporarily suspends hierarchies and makes it easier to genuinely understand one another. When there would normally be conflict or confrontation, here there are new permutations, new situations and new scenarios.
I spoke to the collaborators hoping to find some commonality and a sense of what they made of a project that wasn’t prescribed, where they were asked to surrender to the elements using only their intuition. Leeds/London based dancer, Toussaint Buck and I spoke at length about the body as a vessel for untapped information, the deep plains of emotional experience and knowledge transmission. In Ultiverse he wore white, refracting the light around the room as he flowed from an active, energetic state to momentary pauses when he was enveloped by the sound and movement of the audience and light projections.
Water, air and space were the loose aesthetic qualities that Toussaint Buck and others referred to. His unpredictable yet directed waves of motion responded to whichever force was pulling on his limbs. His transitions in the space had a precariousness, an unknowing – a kind of humanity about them. The project falls in between the death of his grandmother and the birth of his first child. He tells me that he’s grateful for the opportunity to reflect on these events. The reflection is embodied through instinctive actions in the space and impacted by the reflections of the other collaborators. There is a real trust and unified sense of direction.
Ultiverse and the process that it’s born out of require an embrace of lostness and darkness. For Zodwa Nyoni, the rigour of her usual writing practice is replaced with a ‘letting go’. She explains, ‘I’m a methodical writer. I like control. I don’t like feeling lost, I like a plan, I like research’. I can relate to Nyoni’s need for rigour; for me it’s a way to balance insecurity (which is ultimately rooted in a lack of trust in myself); a feeling that if I am to read every book on the subject, work tirelessly for years and make plan after plan after plan, that my work will be worthy. Trusting in the self is key. Nyoni tells me that in her writing she often returns to some of the starting points of Ultiverse; loss, home and displacement. These notions are both geographic and internal sites of excavation for the writer, and for Ultiverse. She likens it to being aware of the vastness of the sea whilst learning how to float.
On reflection I realise that I can’t quite remember the exact sounds of Ultiverse but I am certain that I know how they made me feel. I was aware of this throughout the performance, a longing to remain in the pull of the work. It took me back to boarding school in Uganda and the call to prayer. Sonic beauty coming from above, its power utterly arresting. In Ultiverse we are asked to submit to the depths of the sea and the bellowing voices within it. There’s a layering of pre-recorded material that creates a subdued, velvet-textured groan. These are stories we were never meant to hear, yet with no linear narrative. At intervals the space is filled with soulful harmonies and discordant scats created by Mirabel Ukpabio, Thabo Mkwananzi and Omari Swanston-Jeffers and any audience members who feel compelled to open their mouths.
Singer songwriter Mkwananzi describes his process: ‘I like to finish then start – my mind likes to know where it’s headed’. This contrasts with Bertram’s commitment to working in a space of discovery. There was a particular point in Ultiverse when Mkwananzi and Ukpabio swayed through the audience and around Bertram’s body in a trance like state, the colour and intensity of the light projections transformed with every gesture and inflection of their voices. The sound carried around the space, around me and overwhelmed me to the point of tears. I heard other audience members express similar sentiments. The performance had a ritualistic quality that kept us all in a meditative/aware state, and I marvelled at how they were able to improvise so seamlessly. Mkwananzi told me that he’s interested in the ‘super-listening’ method of jazz musicians, with a hyper-awareness of the artist tools and everything and everyone around them: a practice that is entirely in and of the moment. When the energy changes in the room, you feel it. He described it as a ‘cliff edge, where it falls apart and comes back’, making the analogy that in order to get a good view you have to go to the cliff’s edge. We can hear and feel this tantalising precarity in Ultiverse.
I watched people who were confused and unsure of what to do in the space:
Do I stand in the centre? Do I observe? Do I wait? Has it started? Who’s work is this?
These thoughts are grounded in our hierarchical notions of spectatorship, authorship and viewership in an art context. Despite this, people stayed. They sat on chairs or on the floor in the corner of the room. They stood in between the performers and allowed the light projections to linger on their arms while their movements and sounds triggered the sensors (sometimes without knowing it).
‘Nothing is certain but change’, according to Bertram. The constituent parts of Ultiverse – the light projections, collaborators and audience participants – are all part of this change, consciously or not. For me, this is an idea that echoes beyond the walls of the spaces in which Ultiverse is shown. Bertram tells me in a very chilled way that the work is ‘for the people’, and indeed, Ultiverse is entirely dependent on the responses and emotions of those involved. Hopefully, it will reappear once again and inspire new configurations and ways of relating, to each other and to our shared experience as humans.
Samra Mayanja is a Leeds-based artist, writer and community organiser.
*Ultiverse Collaborators: Akeim Buck, Aron Kyne, Joanne Armitage, Thabo Mkwananzi, Zodwa Nyoni, Adam Glatherine, Anya Stewart Maggs, Omari Bertram, Mirabel Ukpabio. Participants: Malika Alkebsi, Mansor Alkebsi, Yahya Alkebsi, Denmarc Creary, Jessica Passant, Adeline Pitu, Ahmed Mohamed, Salvador Muila, Sallah Omar, Omari Swanston-Jeffers, Ruvimbo Togara.